Culture: Funny About Those Canadians
by Claudio Muñoz
It was mealtime during a flight on Air Canada. "Would you like dinner?" the flight attendant asked John, seated in front. "What are my choices?" John asked. "Yes or no," she replied.
Mothers-in-law; that country right next to your homeland; a doctor, a lawyer and a priest on a plane; the Queen; the Prime Minister; a koala bear; a very drunk neighbour; a teacher; or a prostitute. What do these characters have in common? They are all fine joke-material. Technically, anything can be used for a good joke. But, of course, not everybody can be a good comedian. There were only a few funny guys at school or at the office back home, and there may be a few at your new job, settlement agency or ESL class.
There is this idea, though, that Canadians, in general, are funny. American magazines and newspapers find themselves puzzled with the success of so many Canadians in the entertainment industry. Jim Carrey, Mike Myers, John Candy and Dan Aykroyd are often given as an illustration of this "Canadian invasion".
This perception is valued and encouraged by Canadians themselves. It is okay to be known as polite, but it is better to be funny. They are funny even when they try to explain who they are. Like when they say a Canadian is "an American with healthcare and no guns."
So, why are Canadians so funny? There is no simple answer for that. History, geographical position in the world, boredom, even the weather are parts of the explanation.
For many years, Andrew Clark worked as a comedy reporter for Toronto newspapers. In his book Stand and Deliver, from 1998, he wrote that "living next to America is living next to the wildest party ever held. As Canadians we are never invited to this orgy, but we get front-row seats."
So yeah, Canadians can observe them, detect all those little "peculiar" American things and then make fun of them. And get paid for that by Americans.
The climate is another reason, according to Clark. "In Canada nobody is going to conquer the land or the climate. In a way, here you have to make peace with the elements, that’s always been part of survival. The idea of fate, things we can’t control, is an important part of our lives. So, we have the U.S. just to our side – if you want to influence them you need to adapt. To the climate, you need to adapt as well. Humour is a way to cope with things we don’t control but we have to deal with."
Got it? Like President Bush or snowstorms.
Comedy Canadian Style: madness, improvs and hours of 22 minutes.
Up in heaven God was talking to an angel about this beautiful country he was creating. He described this place to the angel. "It will have lakes, tall mountains, as well as big trees covering the land. The air will be crisp and fresh, the water will always be clean, and the people will be the most friendly you will ever meet. I will call it Canada and the people living inside; Canadians."
"But God," the angel questioned, "don’t you think you are being too nice to these Canadians?" "Nope!" replied God, "Just wait ‘till you see their neighbours!"
The two main forms of comedy in North America, are stand-up and sketch comedy.
Stand-up in Canada means Yuk Yuk’s. The club started in Toronto in a basement on Church Street in 1976. A small stage, provided with a microphone and bad lighting were the only weapons for comedians in those days. But comic’s performances were only half the fun. "They used a cardboard hook to drag bombing acts off the stage. Poor comedians will receive a ‘twominute penalty’ for boring the audience. [Mark] Breslin has a girlfriend dress up in a French maid’s outfit and walk the aisles selling rotten tomatoes to throw at the acts," Clark tells in his book.
Mark Breslin is Yuk Yuk’s creator, the man who played the host, the guy in charge of the madness. "Thirty years ago, some members of the audience walked out in disgust," Breslin explains. "Now, nobody walks out in disgust anymore. I don’t know if that’s because comedy has become safer or culture has adapted to what we do, maybe a bit of both. But I can tell you that unlike other comedy clubs around the world, I particularly seek out stuff that is transgressive (taboo). You can always see something like that at Yuk Yuk’s, even now."
"There’s a lot of talk about sex, some talk about race and the government," describes Breslin when asked about any concerns newcomers should have when they go there. "But, I really don’t know... these days nobody seems to be turned off by that stuff. They are not going to see much more than they see watching cable television."
Yuk Yuk’s is now a chain of clubs all over Canada and you can also watch some performances in TV. The club has been the starting point for many comedians – Jim Carrey is probably the most famous comic to ever come off a Yuk Yuk’s stage. There is even a festival organized by Mark Breslin called "The Big Canadian Laugh".
Sketch comedy is another deal. More than just a guy in front of the audience expressing himself and trying to make people laugh, sketch comedy is about a bunch of guys in front of an audience trying to make people laugh.
Probably closer to theatre than stand-up comedy, one of the most famous places to see this kind of comedy in Canada, at least internationally, is The Second City (SC).
Sketch comedy is a series of one to ten minute scenes performed by comedy actors. Improv is sketch comedy without a script. This art form finds it roots in music halls shows and vaudeville, American and Canadian shows from the 1880’s that featured several artists (dancers, magicians, even freak shows sometimes). It was also considered an important part of theatre, somehow less respected than drama (or the "real theatre").
"Depends on who you ask," says Daniel Shehori, Creative Assistant of the current Second City show Tazed and Confused. "Sketch comedy has done very well, as much as Shakespeare [...] I call it a way to theatre. Some people come to Second City shows before going to see a play and say, "Oh, this is theatre. And I like this. Maybe I should try theatre.""
The Second City is not a Canadian invention; it started in Chicago. Toronto was the second Second City city. But being born in the States, doesn’t mean that their shows are not Canadian. Quite the opposite. "Comedy in Canada as a whole is somehow different," Shehori says. "Canadian comedians seem to write about their identity and the differences between a Canadian and an American." Tazed and Confused actually tackles a pretty Canadian discussion topic these days: the use of tasers by police officers and the Mounties.
"A lot of our comedy is about Canadian identity and the struggle to find such a thing. But in terms of structure [there are not big differences with America]. Look at that television show Saturday Night Live. A lot of their actors started at The Second City, in Chicago or Toronto." Mike Myers, Martin Short, Dan Akroyd for example; they all started here.
Both stand-up and sketch comedy have the same goal – to connect with people. If you laugh with a comedian or at a sketch, you truly understand the situation being described. "He is so right" or "that’s so true" kind of thing. That’s how comedy creates a community.
When it comes to comedy and mass media, a special place belongs to CBC.
Before going to the States, and creating the huge American hit show Saturday Night Live, Canadian Lorne Michaels was on CBC’s The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour.
Comedy troupes who re-defined comedy and shaped Canadian humour including The Kids in the Hall, The Red Green Show, The Royal Canadian Air Farce, CODCO; and more recently This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Rick Mercer Report, have all been on CBC.
Your papers please: immigration and humour.
A Canadian is walking down the street with a case of beer under his arm. His friend Randy stops him and asks, "Hey Dave! Whatcha got that case of beer for?"
"Well, I got it for my wife, you see?" answers Dave.
"Wow!" exclaims Randy, "Great trade."
Canadians are proud of their jokes as they are proud of their love for beer. And hockey. And poutine. And because of this commitment, for more than half a century now, at least some of the biggest comedians in the States have suffered homesickness. But now, with all these immigrants coming from everywhere, has comedy in Canada changed?
"It definitely has changed in places where there’s been a lot of immigration," Mark Breslin from Yuk Yuk’s says. "For instance, Toronto’s comedy, where we are living – in a really multicultural society – all kinds of points of view come from all kinds of different people. If you go to Alberta, it is not as quite as true. And sometimes I’ve found that, when you go to small towns in the middle of the country, they really don’t have a clue what are you talking about."
When you talk about immigrants and comedy in today’s Canada, the name Russell Peters jumps into the conversation almost immediately. Born and raised in Brampton, his parents are from India. And his comedy is all about race relations, stereotypes, racism, and Indian culture. His best jokes are about growing up in an Indian home in the middle of North America.
He is one of many comedians from minority groups. Daniel Shehori from The Second City explains that "if you go back to the seventies or eighties, comedy in Canada was performed mostly by Europeans. It’s still predominantly that way but now there are really big comedians, like Russell Peters, with enormous success."
But his popularity doesn’t mean that comedy itself has changed because of immigration. "What’s interesting," explains Andrew Clark, "is that the humour just goes through different generations and waves of immigration...it’s almost like every wave of people that comes becomes part of the comedy equation, not the other way around." Comedy keeps the same structure. The people adapt to it.
Comedy, like any other art form reflects society, in this case making fun of it. But it also creates a community.
An important part of becoming Canadian is "getting the joke". It may not be funny yet but it will be. So next winter remember: In Canada we have two seasons...six months of winter and six months of poor snowmobile weather.
Pa da boom.
A PRETTY SERIOUS BUSINESS
"Because of the success of Canadian comedians there’s a high awareness of what comedy can do," explains Clark who is not a writer anymore, but the director of the Humber College comedy writing program. "The comedy program at Humber started as a result of this momentum. It began as a workshop in the summer – for one week, teaching people how to do comedy – and the demand was so great that the dean [of The School of Creative and Performing Arts], Joe Kertes, had this idea to see if there was an interest in having an actual diploma program in Comedy."
As it turns out, the interest is high! To get in you don’t need to be Canadian. You just need to be funny.
"What we try to do is make funny people funnier," explains Clark. "We don’t claim to take someone who isn’t funny and make him funny. You can’t do that. Our students study stand-up, sketch, improvisation, writing and film. They are getting the same experience but in a more concentrated period. They also perform every Tuesday night at Yuk Yuk’s comedy club, downtown.
You must apply through the Ontario colleges applications services and then audition – sketch and stand-up comedy that you have written and improvisational comedy.